- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Half of the hospitals in Maryland have been forced to close down beds and units, limit emergency room admissions and postpone some surgeries in the past year due to an acute shortage of nurses, a new survey shows.

The findings were released as the Maryland Commission on the Crisis in Nursing, created earlier this year, held its first meeting yesterday in Baltimore to discuss solutions to the problem.

Of the hospitals that responded to the survey, "half told us they had to make some decisions on postponing elective surgeries and delaying non-life-threatening surgeries," said Nancy Fiedler, a spokeswoman for the Association of Hospitals and Health Systems in Maryland (MHA), an umbrella group that conducted the survey.

"We are beginning to see an impact [of the shortage] now that we had never seen before," she said. The shortage "has emerged faster in Maryland" than elsewhere in the country, she said.

The survey calls the shortage the largest and most severe in more than a decade.

The difficulty in finding new nurses has sent overall nursing costs in the state's hospitals up by 12 percent in the past year, and they are expected to rise another 8 percent by this time next year, the survey says.

The Washington Times reported about the shortage in June, quoting Donna Dorsey, chairman of the Maryland Board of Nursing, who said the drop in nurses in the state last year was the highest in the past five years.

While there were 53,000 nurses in the state just a few years ago, the number dropped to 48,000 in 1998 and 45,700 last year, Mrs. Dorsey said.

The MHA survey found that the statewide average vacancy rate for hospital nurses grew to 14.7 percent during the first quarter of 2000. To fill these vacancies, Maryland hospitals would need to hire an additional 1,629 full-time registered nurses.

Issues specified by experts that helped create the shortage include low wages, lack of autonomy on the job, a poor image created by the media and a lack of understanding about what nurses do. Also, enrollment in nursing schools is dropping because more professions are now open to women.

Pamela Spears, spokeswoman for Montgomery General Hospital, said the Olney hospital had experienced high vacancy rates for nurses and was attempting to fight it with an active recruitment program.

Finding nurses is "a challenge for everyone in the industry right now," she said.

The shortage is particularly acute in Maryland, when compared with neighboring states, Ms. Fiedler said.

And the average age of nurses in Maryland is 48, higher than the national average of 42, she said, which meant there were more retirees.

Meanwhile, the commission, headed by Georges C. Benjamin, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, heard presentations yesterday on how the crisis is being handled, what can be done to alleviate it and the magnitude of the problem in Maryland.

A work committee was set up to prepare a preliminary report on the shortage that would be presented to the commission before the end of this year.

Catherine Crowley, MHA assistant vice president, presented the findings of the survey at the commission's meeting.

The increasing number of elderly people needing nursing care is also affected by the shortage, Ms. Fiedler said.

The last severe nursing shortage in the state was in the late 1980s, but Ms. Crowley said the current shortage is more severe because hospital stays are now shorter, yet patients are older and sicker, with more complex medical conditions requiring more intense nursing care.

Mike Hall, a spokesman for Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, said it has had to limit emergency room admissions at times, although he added that it was not necessarily due to staff shortages.

"If ever there was a situation where we couldn't staff a unit, we would look at the option of closing it down," he said.

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